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College Students Learn Refugee Resettlement by Lending Helping Hands

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Colleges and universities define New England’s culture, bringing innovation and meaningful cultural exchange as they draw educators, researchers, and students from all over the world. For IINE, colleges and universities are important partners; professors and administrators collaborate on our vocational skills training programs and help IINE clients set educational goals. Many local students serve as interns, learning about the work behind the scenes while providing much-needed support to IINE’s staff. 

Now IINE is forging a new type of partnership with local colleges and universities: collaborating directly with students in classes on migration, international affairs, and international business to provide them with hands-on service-learning opportunities. The benefits are threefold: 

  • Refugee families get the support of driven young volunteers who are exploring their new city alongside them.  
  • IINE gets to help shape the next generation of welcomers and supporters. 
  • Participating students get to move beyond research to gain experience and make a tangible difference in the lives of refugees who need support in this pivotal stage.  

“The college students who come here to learn and the refugees who come here for a fresh start all renew and enrich our communities,” says IINE Volunteer and Community Sponsorship Coordinator Kate Waidler. “There’s much to be gained from bringing them together. It’s important for students who are really trying to understand international relations to meet some of the actual people they’re talking about when they’re discussing humanitarianism and victims of war, and it’s great for refugees to meet some people beyond case specialists— young people with different dreams and aspirations who are equally welcoming and want to learn how to help.”  

Kate recently developed partnerships with two universities in Boston while attending monthly meetings of the Supporting Higher Education in Refugee Resettlement project (SHERR), a service-learning-focused sub-group of a national network, and is proud that IINE is one of the first groups to move from theory to practice. “There was a sense from the group of ‘Wow! You’re already doing this!’ I realized that we’re pioneers.” 

Exchanging knowledge and skills with students at Northeastern

In the spring of 2024, IINE completed an inaugural partnership at Northeastern University (NU) working with students in its “Globalization and International Affairs” and “Cultural Aspects of International Business classes. The collaboration included NU classroom visits from IINE staff who trained students in aspects of refugee resettlement. Refugees and immigrants were also invited into the classrooms to participate in valuable discussions about their experiences finding work in a new country. Students engaged in multiple aspects of fieldwork, some traveling to IINE’s Boston office to tutor or teach while others provided hands-on assistance preparing to welcome new refugee arrivals.

Digital Literacy 

One group of NU students was tasked with giving refugees and immigrants with little technology experience a key to accessing IINE classes and services, navigating their communities, and succeeding in the workplace: basic digital literacy.  

Students designed and taught their own workshop to help IINE clients operate smartphones and Chromebooks to access and use needed programs and applications, including IINE’s online ESOL instruction platforms; and to write, edit, and search. Three sessions of the workshop were held for clients from Somalia, Cameroon, Haiti, Central African Republic, Guatemala, South Sudan, and Afghanistan, with interpretation provided in several languages. The project was designed and spearheaded by IINE AmeriCorps Volunteer Rosemary Barnett-Young. 

NU Student quote

“It was something I had both clients and staff express a need for,” says Rosemary, “so I was eager to get the classes up and running. In my own work with clients, I had some challenges with virtually helping explain how to join meetings online, etc. The Northeastern students were incredibly important in offering these classes in person. Clients said it was a great class, and it helped them learn many new things about computers. Many have reached out and expressed interest in follow-up computer classes.” 

Huskies Supporting Families: A Northeastern Student on Welcoming New Arrivals  

Two groups of Northeastern students took on the important task of preparing to welcome newly arriving refugees and making their first day in their new home a success, mirroring the work of IINE’s Resettle Together community sponsorship program. After completing initial training with IINE staff and online training with the Refugee Welcome Collective, a national organization supporting community sponsorship, each group was assigned to a family of incoming refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a few weeks to prepare. Their main tasks were to make sure their families’ first apartment in the U.S. would be fully hospitable and stocked with groceries, greet their families at Logan International Airport, make sure they got safely to their new home, and provide them with a warm, culturally appropriate first meal. 

Thomas Brulay, a second-year Northeastern student studying International Affairs and International Business was one of the students assigned to the Koufoukikas, a group of five siblings and an adult son. His group’s first task was to raise enough money for the Koufoukikas to afford their first month’s rent and security deposit. 

“Our fundraiser was called “Huskies Supporting Families,” Thomas says, explaining that the Huskies is the name of Northeastern’s sports teams and a nickname for their students.  

While he didn’t know much about the family he would be welcoming, Thomas’s own experience as a transplant to Boston helped him empathize with them. For example, Northeastern RT GroupWe handed them out some jackets for the Boston weather. It kind of reminded me of growing up in Miami, [where it was] always like 75-80° out, and then coming to Boston, especially in the winter, it’s like 25° outside, so I think I definitely had that in mind.” 

Thomas further related to the experience of the Koufoukikas as a first-generation American. His mother was born in Brazil and his father in Mexico. 

“The immigrant perspective [I have] because of my family really drove me to help these people. I think being born in the US and being able to speak English and get around—it’s great to be able to use my skills and my familiarity [to help].” 

In addition to speaking English, Thomas speaks Portuguese, Spanish, and a little bit of French, which came in handy when he met the Koufoukikas at the airport.  

“The family only spoke French, and I did take two years of French in high school, but I kind of forgot a lot.” He says with a smile. “I made an effort though to speak with them. They seemed confused when we met, like, ‘Who are these people?’ But I introduced myself and then they understood a little bit better. 

Thomas introduced the Koufoukikas to a driver hired by IINE. While the driver didn’t speak French, he held up his phone to show them a screen displaying the family’s name. Thomas says “their eyes lit up” when they saw it.  

“It definitely made me realize how hard it can be,” he reflects. You can be approached by anyone—it’s not always someone that’s trying to help you out. Their journey was so long, They were at Dulles [Airport] for like 8 hours, being  interrogated by American immigration officials, and they finally made it to Boston and were super tired—it was just great to be able to assist them, moving them into a comfortable place to sleep in Boston so they could start their new life—[it makes me] realize just how fortunate I am.” 

After the driver took the Koufoukikas to a motel where they would stay while their apartment was being prepared, Thomas went back to Northeastern with his team members. They used the dormitory kitchen to prepare the family a Congolese-style chicken dish for which he had found a recipe online, and then delivered it to them—his last duty as a resettlement volunteer.  

Thomas left his experience inspired and plans to volunteer more in the future. He offers this advice to other students who may be interested: 

“I’d say go for it! Maybe it can be a little bit scary at first, but try to put yourself in their shoes. You know, it’s so hard for, especially refugees, who, they’re just, looking for a better life and a better future.” 

University of Massachusetts Boston: Data Dictionary, Housing Handbook, and ESOL for Equality 

Over at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston, students in a class called, The Complex Landscape of Refugee Resettlement: Transnational Migration and Concurrent Realities,engaged in some other very practical projects with lasting impact 

Assessing Progress with a Data Dictionary   

After learning about the need from IINE staff, one group of UMass students developed what they called a “Data Dictionary,” a survey-based assessment tool to measure the effectiveness of IINE programs in helping refugees integrate into their new communities. Informed by their academic research, the diagnostic tool included questions for clients on how they were progressing in meeting their goals of achieving language skills, accessing public benefits, integrating into their new communities, achieving self-sufficiency, and progressing toward citizenship. The final tool was translated into two additional languages before being handed off to IINE case workers who now plan to pilot it with a family of refugee clients.  

A Housing-Search Handbook    

UMass Boston Resettlement volunteers worked on one of the first stages of the process—and one of the most challenging: finding affordable housing that’s walkable to key resources such as public transportation, grocery stores, and community centers, in a notoriously scarce housing market. After learning about the process and pitfalls of the housing search from IINE, the group of seven students set out to directly contact landlords to make their pitch about IINE clients as tenants, check availability and interest, and then pass on leads to IINE staff. They used information gleaned from the experience to help document and streamline the housing search, creating a spreadsheet that automates key listing information and a brochure full of useful tips and step-by-step instructions. 

Read IINE’s post on finding housing for refugees. 

“These resources are incredible!” says Kate, who supervised the project. “These students took the initiative, pushing through the intimidation factor of having informed, sensitive conversations, and handed us tools that make our work easier, and of course, greatly improve the lives of refugees making a fresh start here.” 

At the end of the project, students reflected on their learning and success. One student wrote,  

“This project really made me hone my research skills and learn how to be resourceful, and also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my position where housing isn’t an issue I have but is one I can help others with.”  

ESOL for Equality    

UMass Boston students in an English for Speakers of Other Languages cohort had the opportunity to step into the shoes of an instructor for some eager adult learners. Naming their project “ESOL for Equality,” each UMass Student was paired with one client currently on IINE’s ESOL waiting list. With training and guidance from IINE, they each designed and implemented an individualized course of study for their students and taught it over a semester.  

“These designs were really thoughtful and well executed!” says Kate. “Our ‘ESOL for Equality”’ instructors took the time to get to know their students’ goals and language levels and then helped teach the specific vocabulary they needed.”  

“One instructor wanted to meet her student at a local library, so she formed a relationship with the librarian, and as part of a class, helped her student get a library card. She also helped her open a bank account. Other instructors developed videos for the clients to help them drill lessons, worked with them over Zoom and coached them on digital literacy, played word games with them, and even took them on field trips to local museums! This went beyond English instruction, facilitating some great opportunities for social connections and cultural exchange.” 

Gianna Speaks, a UMass Boston Biochemistry major who served as an “ESOL for Equality” instructor and decided to continue as an IINE ESOL teacher when the project concluded, reflected, “Volunteering for ESOL was an eye-opening experience. It really allowed me to get a glimpse at the lives of refugees, and the similarities and differences in cultures and ways of life. It also gave me a peek into the struggles that come with having to adapt to a new language on top of everything else. It was very rewarding seeing how each lesson brought my client closer to their goals (getting a job/going to school).” 

•••

IINE is continuing to develop new forms of partnerships with higher education institutions. In April, IINE launched a pilot program at the Boston University Center for Forced Displacement. Instructors in the program are providing workshops for IINE case workers in refugee resettlement policy and practice, on the global and national levels, to broaden and contextualize their understanding of the field. The long-term goals of the initiative are to create a model that can be replicated by other universities and resettlement agencies and to create a credential for participants to help advance their careers.

With these first successes now in the books, IINE is excited to forge more partnerships with colleges and universities going forward, bringing together practitioners and researchers, and connecting the next wave of youth who have made their way to Boston to study with refugees who have come here seeking safety and a new start—all preparing for a bright future.

Nazia’s Story: An Afghan Refugee’s Relentless Commitment to Education and Hope

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The hardest and most important job

Growing up in Afghanistan, Nazia developed a true passion for teaching at a young age. She became an English instructor when she was in 10th grade, and for years, continued teaching for little or no money, eager to gain experience.  

“Teaching has been my dream job. In our country, people don’t have a good perspective about teaching – they think it’s a simple job, but it’s the hardest and most important job. A doctor once had a teacher. A president once had a teacher.”   

With time, Nazia became successful and well-known in her profession. While completing her university degree in education, she taught English to both children and university students, and then after graduating, accepted a role teaching adult learners online. With hard work and sacrifice, she had built a life for herself doing what she loved. 

 

A dark cloud 

Then, the Taliban came and took it all away. It was 2021, and Kabul had fallen in what felt like an instant.  

“[Women] lost the right to get an education and have a job. We couldn’t travel alone, we had to have a guardian. It felt like a really big, dark cloud had come over our country and it was not going to move away. It made everything dark. You felt like thunder was going to hit you; the thunder was the Taliban.” 

As a woman, it was now illegal for Nazia to teach. It took her a full year to find an opportunity to do so anywaya decision which came with real peril.

“Taliban were living in our neighborhood, so when I taught, I would close all the windows and doors. I felt afraid they would hear my voice talking in English, and I would cause danger for my family.” 

The Taliban did their best to fan the flames of her fear. 

“Two separate times, I received a WhatsApp message from an unknown number with a profile picture of the Taliban, asking me ‘Have you started teaching again?’ I deleted the message and blocked the account. It was terrifying, but I didn’t stop because there were a lot of women who needed education, they needed a light in the darkness. My class was not only for teaching English, it was to give students motivation to be brave, to never lose hope.” 

Nazia did not give up. In fact, she wanted to do more. She decided to start a social support and education group for fellow women living under the Taliban, which she named “Lifesaver Girls.” It took her many tries to find an education center brave enough to host this illegal gathering, but with perseverance, she was able to convene one meeting. She felt she had to. 

“After the Taliban took over, most of the girls got disappointed and depressed. This group motivated them. When they first came to the meeting, you could feel the hopelessness and [see] deep sorrow in their faces. We talked about some successful women who did their best in the hardest situations, and we introduced them to online ways to get an education. At the end of the session, you could see the brightness of hope in their eyes.”  

A really hard night 

Nazia had been living in Ghazni, a city about two hours from Kabul. In December of 2023, she received a call from the organization that was helping to evacuate her from Afghanistan. They told her to be in Kabul the next morning. Women were not allowed to travel alone, so she set off with her father. They waited 14 days before being evacuated to Pakistan. Then they had to walk an hour in the middle of the night to meet the driver who would take them to Pakistan and then to Qatar.  

“It was a really hard night. It was so stressful. At the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Taliban checked all of the stuff we had and asked ‘Where are you going? Are you going to a foreign country?’ I told them ‘No, I’m sick.’ My father was pushing me in a wheelchair so they would believe me.” 

Nazia told the Taliban that another male relative was waiting for her at the border, so that her father was able to leave her. Then she was alone. She was checked by the Taliban four separate times. When she got to Pakistan, she stayed three nights before being evacuated to a camp in Qatar. It was a difficult period.  

“It was like you are in a big jail. You are not allowed to go out of the camp. I was stressed that my case wouldn’t be accepted, and I would think about how I would live in Afghanistan. I would be arrested for leaving the country alone.”  

After 28 days, Nazia’s case was approved. She arrived in Boston in January 2024.  

Learning how to walk 

Nazia with IINE Career Navigator Emma Pond

Within one week of her arrival in Boston, Nazia enrolled in services at the International Institute of New England (IINE). Case Workers quickly helped her get her social security card, enroll in food benefits and health care, and acquire her work permit. IINE’s Education and Employment teams helped her to write a resume, begin searching for jobs, and explore opportunities to pursue a master’s degree. She was also invited to a monthly support group for fellow Afghan women to meet, socialize, share advice, and explore their new city together.  

IINE’s Afghan Women’s Group in Boston

Nazia says that the people she meets at IINE are “really kind and helpful. I’m really thankful.” She is adjusting to life in Boston and learning how to navigate new challenges with IINE’s help.  

“It has some hardships. I’m getting used to a new environment—living without my family, traveling alone—but it is an interesting experience. Nowadays, I’m like a baby trying to walk, standing and falling down, but still not losing hope. The baby is sure they will learn how to walk even though it is hard. Here in the U.S., I’m learning how to walk. IINE is helping me to learn.”  

Finding the light 

Even before she came to the U.S., Nazia had dreamed of pursuing a master’s degree and then a PhD at Harvard University. Now this dream feels closer. 

I came to Boston by chance— it’s a really beautiful coincidence. I want to get my master’s and PhD in [Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages], and one day, become a professor. Everyone says being a Harvard student would be hard; I agree it’s hard, but it is not impossible.” 

Nazia is also a writer. She has already had some success—a short story published on the website of a university in Iowa. She’s writing more short stories and hopes to write a romance novel one day. One thing’s for sure: nothing will stop her from striving for her dreams. It’s not easy, but she knows she now has support—and freedom.  

“In our country, we couldn’t go out after 5 p.m. Here, I can. I feel safe. There is no Taliban here, no one that will restrict me from following my dreams. When I have a hard time and miss my country, I walk around, and I see beautiful smiles. I feel ‘this might be hard, but I’m in a good environment… ‘I believe that when something is hard, it makes you the real version of you. There might be moments you feel down, like nothing is going to get right, but still in that moment, we can find the light.”  

We are proud to have welcomed, resettled, and supported refugees in the New England region for over 100 years. Learn more about our refugee resettlement work here.

Life Science Cares – About IINE

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Over the summer, IINE deepened our relationship with a unique corporate partner.  Life Science Cares (LSC) is an association of like-minded local bio-tech companies that have banded together to increase their philanthropic and volunteer impact in the region.

In 2017, IINE was designated as one of the organization’s beneficiaries and invited to a Council of Champions Mixer at Millipore Sigma in Burlington, MA.  LSC collected gift cards at the mixer that IINE used to purchase new professional clothes and groceries for our clients.

Recently LSC brought 13 volunteers to Boston participate in a “Mock Interview Night” for students participating in IINE’s evening  English classes for Speakers of Other Languages. Mock interviews give IINE students the opportunity to practice their job interviewing and English skills with a local professional.  Coming up in November, Life Science Cares volunteers will host a special Thanksgiving celebration for students in our Boston ESOL classes.

In addition to engaging with IINE as volunteers, Life Science Cares provided IINE with a generous grant in support of our employment programs in our Boston and Lowell sites. We were honored to be among the organizations selected for support during Life Science Cares’ first formal grant-making year.

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Meet Biar Kon

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All you really need to know about Biar Kon is this: in the right shoes, under a spotlight, he is unstoppable.

During last week’s Suitcase Stories performance on World Refugee Day, he gave a tour-de-force storytelling presentation before a crowd of almost two hundred people.  In his dapper patterned suit and bedazzled shoes, he mesmerized the audience with the story of his experience in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. You can see a video of his story online here.

Biar was born in Sudan, but he and his family fled their homeland in 1993, and for the next two decades, Biar lived in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. In 2015, Biar and his family resettled to Boston and then moved to Lowell, MA.

Currently a student at Middlesex Community College, Biar will complete his associate’s degree in Business Administration this fall. After graduation, Biar hopes to complete his bachelor’s degree and earn his master’s in business administration with a minor in political science at a university in Boston. Obviously a dedicated student, Biar said that in his spare time he reads business books — his latest favorites are The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

On top of his busy academic schedule, Biar also serves as an IINE intern in Lowell, where he helps resettle refugees and interprets for some Somali and Swahili-speaking clients.

When he tells the story of his early life, Biar purposely draws a connection between his own experience and what he imagines children today are enduring at camps in Africa, and in detention centers in Texas. As he said in his “Suitcase” story, he remembers how it feels to be powerless over one’s own life.

Biar is a bit shy about his hopes for the future. He said his “biggest motivation” is the dream of one day opening his own business. Until that time, though, it seems he will study, learn, help people, and continue to share his own powerful story in the hope that those who hear it will be inspired to give a young person a chance to succeed – just like the chance he feels he received when he came to the U.S.

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What Would You Risk?

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Imagine being faced with a terrible choice – risk persecution, imprisonment, and torture, or leave behind everything you’ve ever known for a slim chance at safety? What would you do, if your survival was at stake?

Every day across the world, people like you and me are forced to flee their homelands because of violence and persecution. This is the reality of an unprecedented 21.3 million refugees worldwide, including the 623 refugee women, men, and children from 20 countries that the International Institute of New England (IINE) resettled in the past year in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. These clients had the courage to fight for new lives, and with our help are now reclaiming the future that was stolen from them.

Recently, I met Hanna Petros Solomon, a refugee from Eritrea who risked her life twice to come to the United States. Orphaned at a young age, Hanna and her siblings had little chance of surviving one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Together, they made the decision to escape – and were caught. For three years, Hanna was transferred from prison to prison, places known to be rife with torture and other human rights abuses.

Eventually, Hanna convinced a prison guard to let her go. This time, she successfully escaped from Eritrea with her siblings and fled to Ethiopia, before resettling to the U.S. as a refugee in 2012 and reuniting with her grandmother and sister in Boston. Yet the safety of family and a new life could not erase the trauma she experienced in her homeland. To acclimate to her new surroundings and transition to American life, Hanna needed the diligent assistance of IINE staff.

Hanna’s caseworker placed her in our English and Cultural Orientation classes at our Boston site, where she learned how to navigate her new city and its cultural expectations. Hanna then enrolled in and graduated from our Hospitality Training Program, and with the help of her training specialist found work as a server at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel.

Today, Hanna is looking ahead to her next graduation ceremony. As a junior at Tufts University studying clinical psychology, she is determined to help others like her heal from mental and emotional trauma. One day, Hanna would like to return to Eritrea and be a part of fixing its broken mental healthcare system. But first, we are pleased to welcome her as an intern at IINE in Boston this summer.

“I chose to intern at IINE,” explains Hanna, “because I want to show clients and my refugee peers that they can make it in life. They have the chance to change their lives.

In 2016, the Institute served 1,737 new Americans like Hanna. As our nation wrestles with questions about how open our borders and society should be, IINE continues to provide education, job training, and other critical programming to people seeking safety and the chance of prosperity. Our services are needed now more than ever, and we are grateful for the support and dedication of our community.

Today, we ask you to help those whose lives have been upended by violence and persecution. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift and honor the courage and bravery of people like Hanna, as they work toward a brighter future in the United States.

As we prepare to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, we have an opportunity this year to receive a matching $25,000 contribution thanks to the generosity of some of our supporters. For all gifts made to IINE by June 30, these donors will match dollar-for-dollar all gifts of $1,000 or more, and will provide a match of 50 cents for every dollar raised from contributions of less than $1,000. This means your gift will go farther and help even more immigrants and refugees – but only until June 30.

Thank you for your generous support, and for helping us give newcomers like Hanna a chance to change their lives.

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